Legislators, Wichita superintendent clash over school funding

Friction between schools and the state Legislature flared Thursday, as lawmakers fenced with the superintendent of Wichita schools over the district's plan to sue the state to halt funding cuts.

Sen. Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, and Rep. Steve Huebert, R-Valley Center, pounced on Wichita superintendent John Allison when he spoke to about 25 lawmakers at the annual meeting of the South Central Legislative delegation.

Usually, the meeting is a collegial affair where local government and business interests present their wish lists before the Legislature goes into its January session. But this year is different.

Faced with budget deficits of $254 million this year and $358 million in 2011, lawmakers and the governor are expected to cut at least $155 million from what schools were promised. That, along with earlier cuts, has prompted districts across the state to join litigation to stop it.

Wagle told Allison she doesn't see any way for the state to maintain school funding at its current level without a large tax increase, which she said would hurt individuals and businesses struggling in the down economy.

"Are you advocating for a tax increase, in this environment?" she asked.

Allison replied: "I think the question is not advocating a tax increase as much as it is about advocating a discussion about what are the current revenue streams."

He said board members and others in the education community want lawmakers to reconsider various tax exemptions they've granted to determine "are they where they need to be in order to meet some of the other obligations of the state."

Wagle replied that many of the tax exemptions go to nonprofits and businesses that help the state's economy.

"We need a reasonable discussion about how do you squeeze blood out of a turnip," Wagle said. "I think you're asking way too much out of the people of Kansas and the Legislature."

Allison replied that 50 school boards have approved suing the Legislature over funding and that those boards are made up of "elected officials just like yourself."

At issue is a decision by the Wichita school board to help finance litigation by a group of districts called Schools for Fair Funding.

In 2005, the coalition won a Supreme Court ruling that the Legislature had fallen short of its constitutional mandate to adequately fund schools.

The Legislature complied with the judgment — reluctantly — by passing a $466 million, three-year school funding increase, the largest in state history.

The new lawsuit will seek to reopen that court case, known as the Montoy decision.

Having the school districts sue the Legislature again doesn't sit well with many lawmakers.

Huebert said he thinks "it's just counterproductive to sue," because the Legislature simply doesn't have the money in the current recession to continue to support schools at their current level.

"The common goal is restoring that money and we will restore that money. It's just going to take time," he said.

He also said he thinks schools are misleading the public by presenting their funding problems in terms of per-pupil base funding.

He pointed out that the schools have a variety of income beyond that, including bond-payment supports, local option budgets and various state and federal grants.

Also, he said, a lot of the money added to school budgets after Montoy has been for special-education and poverty-level students — and much of that went to Wichita because of the district's makeup.

Allison acknowledged that the district benefited from extra funding for special-needs students, but defended the district's focus on base aid.

Allison said the base aid is the primary source of money to pay for classroom education.

Also, he said, state cuts would have to come out of the district's $250 million a year general fund budget.

The majority of the district's $620 million budget is restricted money that can be used only for specific purposes, such as special education or building improvements, he said.